A silent audience had watched Kultar’s Mime in Delhi last year, chilled by the shared awareness that the events unfolding on stage had taken place in the city 30 years ago to the day. Brought to India by actors from the US, the plot revolves around Jewish artistes in New York City who are marking the anniversary of the Kishinev pogrom — a massacre of the Jewish population in Kishinev, the capital of the Russian province of Bessarabia, on April 6, 1903 — through an art exhibition and a poetry reading. During their research, the artistes learn about the organised violence against the Sikh population in 1984 in Delhi and decide to highlight it in their exhibition. Kultar’s Mime uses painting, narration, acting and poetry to draw out the horrors of the anti-Sikh massacre and depicts it through the experiences of its most vulnerable survivors — children.
The play has been performed at prestigious venues, from universities, such as Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, Chicago and Boston to the British Parliament for members of the houses of Lords and Commons and was invited back to perform at Scottish Parliament. Gurdwaras, churches and synagogues have staged the play. The bookending of the story of the Delhi massacre with the tale of killings of the Jews in Kishinev broadened the appeal of Kultar’s Mime and also found it a stage at Jewish community centers of Toronto and Vancouver.
The extraordinary journey is now celebrated in an eponymous book. The pages travel the spectrum, from the play’s inception in a poem that was written by director Sarbpreet Singh after he read a paper, Voices of Children, by Dr Veena Das, who had been studying young survivors of the carnage, to a meeting with the real-life Kultar, a speech and hearing impaired boy called Avatar, in Delhi. The book is published by Createspace and is available at Amazon, among others. Excerpts from an interview with Singh:
How did you respond to the Sikh massacre as it happened in 1984?
In 1984, I was an undergraduate at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani. I was aware that something terrible had occurred in Delhi, Kanpur, Lucknow and Bokaro, but didn’t understand the extent of the violence and its nature. Dependent on AIR, Doordarshan and mainstream media, I bought into the narrative that was prevalent and, in hindsight, carefully cultivated. The narrative roughly went as follows — Sikhs were a troublesome and fractious lot who had been at odds with the government and, while no right-minded person condoned the violence following Mrs Gandhi’s assassination, there was definitely a sense that the Sikhs had ‘asked for it’ because some of them had turned to violence to advance their political demands. As a young Sikh, I vividly remember carrying my share of the burden of collective guilt that the official narrative placed upon the community.
What changed your mind and resulted in the play, Kultar’s Mime?
When I was a student in the US, I quite serendipitously stumbled upon a slim report, titled Who Are The Guilty, published by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and the People’s Union for Democratic Rights. Among other documents, I also discovered Voices of Children. The case histories presented were heartrending, in particular that of young Avatar. Avatar had been traumatised by the lynching of his father with the active participation of several neighbours. Being deaf and mute, the only way the child could articulate his trauma was by acting out what had been happened to his father with his body, which he would do repeatedly while in the grip of PTSD. It resulted Kultar’s Mime, the poem, in 1990. My daughter and co-author, J Mehr Kaur had grown up with the poem. In early 2013, while a student at Smith College, studying theater, she decided to adapt the poem into a play. The journey of Kultar’s Mime with professional actors began in September 2014. A year-and-a-half later, it has been performed 71 times and has been seen by 14,000 people worldwide.
How is the book different from a script of the play?
The book consists of the following sections — A foreword by feminist and academic Dr Uma Chakravarti, who has worked with the survivors of 1984 and co-authored a well-regarded book on the subject; the complete original poem; the script; an account of the journey of Kultar’s Mime, covering the first 36 performances, which culminates in an extraordinary meeting with Avatar, the young man whose story is told in the play.
Tell us about an instance from staging the play that you recount in book.
In March 2015, we presented the play in Chennai. Here we were, far from the Sikh homeland of the Punjab, talking about the pain of the Sikhs. With me was Sashi Kumar, who had beautifully told a story that epitomised ‘embracing the pain of the other’ in his brilliant film Kaya Taran. A few feet from us sat a Hindu woman, Teesta Setalvad, who had set out on a quest to seek justice for the Muslim minority of Gujarat, which was victimised in the 2002 carnage. All of a sudden, for a wonderful moment, everything that Kultar’s Mime had tried to accomplish became very real. I felt a rush of exhilaration, compassion and humility, all at once.